So I Married a Terrorist . . .
Saraah Olson's strange trip through the U.S. war on terror
NICK SCHOU | April 19, 2007
The first time Saraah Olson called the FBI about her husband was on Feb. 26, 1993. At 12:27 p.m. Eastern time, a truck bomb had exploded inside the garage of New York City's World Trade Center.
While working on a term paper at her Garden Grove apartment, Olson turned on her television and saw coverage of the explosion, which killed six and wounded 1,042 people. She immediately called her husband, Hisham Diab, an Egyptian immigrant and insurance salesman for MetLife whom she had married two years earlier. She reached Diab at his office in Carson, California.
"They blew up the Trade Center," Olson told him, her voice frantic with disbelief. "They keep saying, 'The Arabs did it; the Arabs did it. They are blaming Arabs.'" Olson recalls that her husband didn't seem the least bit surprised.
He uttered exactly two words. "They should," he said. Then he hung up the telephone.
Olson had been growing suspicious about her husband for several months, ever since Diab had invited a blind Egyptian cleric to stay in their apartment building for three days while he gave inspirational sermons at the local mosque. The cleric, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, would later be charged in connection with the Trade Center bombing. But more than anything, it was Diab's apparent lack of surprise and cold reaction to the Trade Center bombing that led Saraah Olson to call the FBI.
"I was like, son of a bitch," Olson says. "What kind of person would say, 'they should' unless they know something they're not supposed to know?"
Immediately after calling Diab, Olson dialed the number of the Santa Ana office of the FBI. A nice-sounding woman answered the telephone and asked how she could help. "I need to give someone some information," Olson said. "I don't know who I should talk to. I married an Arab. He's Egyptian. He's a friend of the blind cleric. He has some extreme political beliefs, and I just told my husband they blew up the Trade Center and are blaming Arabs, and he said they should. I just think somebody should look into that."
As Olson recalls the conversation, the woman thanked her for calling and hung up.
"She didn't take my name or anything," Olson recalls.
So Olson called the FBI again. She demanded that the woman write down her name and telephone number. This time, the woman was less friendly.
"We're not interested in that," she said.
Nearly 12 years later—and after what she estimates were nearly three dozen fruitless telephone calls to the FBI—Saraah Olson visited New York's Ground Zero. It was September 2004, three years after the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil. She took a brief detour on her trip from John F. Kennedy airport to the Manhattan offices of ABC News. She had just flown to New York to tape a segment of Primetime Live in which she would recount how her ex-husband recruited an Orange County teenager named Adam Yahiye Gadahn into Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, Al-Qaeda.
Olson would claim that Diab and his best friend and next-door neighbor, a Palestinian-American named Khalil Deek—both of whom, like Gadahn, disappeared in the Middle East shortly before 9/11—were members of an Orange County terrorist sleeper cell. At the time, the FBI had just identified Gadahn, a masked figure calling himself "Azzam the American" in videos aired on Al Jazeera, as an emerging voice of propaganda for Al-Qaeda.
In the tape, Gadahn warned Americans they should convert to Islam or risk terrorist attacks that will dwarf those of 9/11. "The streets of America will run red with blood," he predicted.
Olson remembers those words as something the blind cleric had said during his visit to her apartment. As she surveyed the gaping hole where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center had once stood, one phrase ran through her mind.
"All of this could have been stopped," she thought. "All of this could have been stopped if just one person had stopped talking and listened to me."
* * *
On a recent weekday morning, Saraah Olson sips a cup of coffee at Hof's Hut, a busy diner on Pacific Coast Highway in Long Beach. She's explaining how she unwittingly married a terrorist and provided cover to an Orange County sleeper cell, how she tried to stop 9/11, and why she now fears for her life. Arranging the interview has taken several months. Olson doesn't visit Long Beach, where she moved as a teenager from her hometown of Vancouver, Washington, very often. She refuses to say where she lives now, except that she divides her time between Texas, California and Hawaii.
Olson's bizarre journey through the U.S. war on terror began in 1991, when she first met Hisham Diab while a teaching assistant at Cal State Dominguez Hills in Carson. For the next several years, Olson says, she lived in fear of Diab as she gradually realized he was infiltrating Orange County's Muslim community in an effort to establish a terrorist network. She says she watched helplessly as her husband helped Sheik Rahman evade arrest after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and endured a beating when she accidentally foiled Diab's plot to provide Osama bin Laden with a phony U.S. passport.
She's sharing her story now because, she says, the FBI ignored her when she tried to warn them about Diab before 9/11—and that they refused to protect her from retaliation by Al-Qaeda once she went public with her story. Olson is also upset because the FBI still doesn't believe everything she's told them.
"The last time I talked to them was in December 2004," she says. "I cut off all contact with them because they misled me and lied to me and tried to make me think I'm crazy—that Hisham had nothing to do with bin Laden."
If so, the U.S. government—which has steadfastly refused to confirm key elements of her story—isn't alone in questioning her credibility. Many people familiar with her tale, including at least one of her biggest supporters, say Saraah Olson might be exaggerating.
Her relationship with Diab began blissfully, she says, but quickly degenerated into "hell." But to hear her describe it, Olson's life wasn't so easy long before she met Diab.
Born to a mother who worked as a nurse and a father she never knew—her stepfather inspected mining equipment but never seemed to work—she arrived in Long Beach in 1982, when her parents divorced at the age of 15.
Shortly thereafter, her mother became ill with cancer but didn't qualify for welfare because she wasn't officially a California resident. So both Olson and her sister started working full-time, flipping burgers at McDonald's and frying poultry at Kentucky Fried Chicken.
"I dropped out of school to support the family," Olson says. "It was minimum-wage, but back then, you could lie about your age."
Four years later, Olson gave birth to a son, Ryan, out of wedlock. Ryan's father, she says, was an alcoholic and "world-class" crack addict. They never married. Raising Ryan on her own wasn't easy, especially since his father typically sent her less than $100 per month in child-support payments.
While juggling her duties as a single mother, she began taking classes at Long Beach City College and, in 1990, enrolled at Cal State Dominguez Hills, where she majored in political science and psychology. To cover her tuition, Olson worked as a teaching assistant to an English professor at Long Beach City College and processed student visas for foreign-born students studying English as a second language at Cal State Dominguez Hills.
One day, Hisham Diab, a clean-cut Egyptian wearing an expensive suit, walked into her office. "His English wasn't that good, but he was clean-shaven, well-groomed and well-mannered," Olson recalls. Diab didn't shake her hand, which didn't surprise her: her sister had recently married a Jordanian, and she knew that observant Muslims frowned upon informal contact between the sexes.
"He just seemed like a normal guy," Olson says. "He left and came back five minutes later and said, 'Would you like to go to dinner?' And I said, 'No, but thanks for asking.' So he came back every day for the next three or four days and finally I said, 'Okay, how about lunch?'"
The first date was hardly the stuff of romance: a quick bite at El Torito in Buena Park, where Olson lived at the time. "I figured it was close to my house, so I could drive home if I needed to leave, but he was a nice guy."
Olson recalls being attracted to the fact that, like her—and unlike her ex-boyfriend—Diab didn't drink alcohol. So Olson agreed to extend the date with a stroll through the shops at Knotts Berry Farm.
The next day, Diab arrived at her office with a bouquet of flowers. When he asked if he could see her again, Olson said yes. Along with Diab's Mexican roommate and his girlfriend, the two went out for a series of dinners. "They seemed nice, and we went out a few more times with them," Olson says. "And from there, we just started dating."
At the time, Diab was in the process of divorcing his first wife, an American woman.
"Hisham and I had been dating for six months, and he said we should get married. By this time, he had been giving me $2,000 or $3,000 a month, and I had his ATM card, so if I ever needed anything, I could use it. He was really nice to Ryan at the time—helping him learn the alphabet in kindergarten."
Diab's divorce finally became official in July 1992; Olson married him the very next day. The crowd was evenly divided between Olson's family and people Diab had invited from the mosque. His only prenuptial condition was that Olson convert to Islam. The process was simple. Olson simply went to the mosque and stated three times that there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet. But the day before the wedding, Olson says, the imam who had agreed to perform the ceremony backed out. Diab had to spend the rest of the evening calling around to find a replacement.
"The guy who had agreed to do it never spoke to us again," Olson says. "And then one day, I see him at the mosque, and he tells me I have to be very careful of my husband and some of his friends. And I thought he was saying that because Hisham was pissed at him for not showing up for the wedding. But I found out later that he [the imam] found out what they were doing, what they were all about, and what kind of politics they had, and he didn't want to have anything to do with it."
While converting to Islam was easy, Olson says, keeping her husband happy was another matter entirely. Before they had married, she had agreed to raise her son Ryan as a Muslim and had begun teaching English classes at the Islamic Society of Orange County. But after the wedding, Olson says Diab revealed a dark side. Any perceived slight, such as incorrect pronunciation of Arabic words while reciting from the Koran or acknowledging the presence of men with a simple "hello," would earn her a vicious slap to the face—or worse.
By now, the couple had moved from Olson's condominium in Buena Park to an apartment building in Garden Grove, so they could be closer to the mosque. The building had narrow hallways and staircases. As they were leaving their unit one day, a man had to squeeze past them, and Olson was unable to move out of his way quickly enough to please her husband. "I leaned against the wall, and he brushed by me," Olson recalls. After the man had left the building, she claims, Hisham attacked her. "You have to pay attention," he yelled. "Hisham shoved me so hard I fell down the stairs."
Ryan, now a 21-year-old college student, says he doesn't remember anything but verbal and physical abuse at the hands of Diab. He recalls a typical incident that occurred when he was 6 years old. He had arrived at the apartment after school, only to realize he had left his key at home. "He locked me out of the apartment," Ryan says. "He was inside the apartment the whole time and let me sit out in the cold, banging on the door and crying. I remember my mom came home, found me outside, and was very angry with Hisham. I remember going to my room and hiding there."
According to Ryan, Diab also insisted he eat everything from his plate. He learned to stay hungry until dinner to make sure he could finish his dinner. "I didn't want to be beat by him for not having a completely clean plate," he says. "I still feel exceptionally guilty and sick to my stomach when I have to throw away food for any reason."
Diab's dietary dictums became particularly harsh during Ramadan, a month-long Islamic celebration that obligates all Muslims to fast from dusk to dawn each autumn. Ryan recalls waking up each day and eating as much food as possible, then spending the rest of the day fighting hunger pangs. "One day, I broke down and ate some food out of our cupboard with my friend Muhammed," he says. "Hisham discovered us, and I got the beating of a lifetime for it. I remember my ears hurting like they never had before and the pain in my face from all the times he hit me. I spent the rest of the day in my room."
Haitham "Danny" Bundajki, then the president of the Islamic Society of Orange County, where Diab and Olson prayed and where Olson taught English classes to children, recalls the first time he spoke to Olson. "I noticed that her fist was wrapped, and I asked her what was going on," he says. "She confessed to me that she was being beaten by her husband." On another occasion, he was driving down the street when he happened to pass by her apartment and saw Olson crying on the sidewalk. "I found out she had another fight with her husband, and this was an ongoing thing between them." Bundakji, who also worked as a chaplain for the Garden Grove Police Department, advised Olson to report Diab to the police. "I don't know whether she did," he says. "Usually, I try to bridge the gap between spouses when there is a problem, rather than get the law involved. But when there is visible evidence of abuse, that's when I get angry, and I told her to do something about it."
But Olson says she was too terrified of her husband to stand up to his abuse. On several occasions, she says, Diab threatened to kill her. "I already knew he was crazy," she says. "He said, 'If you try to leave me, I will kill you.'" Diab tried to control her every move, refusing to let her spend any time alone with her son. "He'd hit you for any misspoken word, for shaking someone's hand. You'd get slapped. It was terrifying."
* * *
According to Olson, her husband's strict interpretation of Islam—if not his abusive behavior—was aided and abetted by his best friend, a Palestinian-born U.S. citizen and software engineer named Khalil Deek who had moved to Anaheim from Texas, where he had a brief marriage to an American woman.
Deek, Olson recalls, always seemed to be traveling back and forth from California to the Middle East. He wore a beard and dressed in a dishdashah—a long tunic popular among conservative Muslims—and prayed five times per day. Diab wore Western business suits to work but, like Deek, attended mosque in a dishdashah. Both men rolled their pants up so they didn't touch the ground, a mark of piety inspired by an early Muslim cleric.
Olson says her husband's behavior changed when Deek returned from a trip to Jordan in August 1992, just a month after her wedding. They had moved to Anaheim from Garden Grove to stay in his apartment while he was gone, and when he returned, Deek moved into another unit in the same building. "Suddenly, everything is very strict," she says. "You can't speak to other men or even acknowledge their presence."
She says Diab and Deek spent every Friday night at the mosque leading a discussion circle for single men, many of whom would often drop by their apartment complex. But the biggest crowd, she recalls, arrived when Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman dropped by for a visit. At the time, she says, her husband simply told her that the cleric was a famous religious scholar from Egypt who had been charged—and cleared—with an assassination attempt against Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
At least 30 people gathered in Deek's apartment while she prepared food for the guests. "Khalil had no furniture," she says. "He just had a carpet on the floor and big pillows. I could see the whole thing through his window."
Ryan also remembers Rahman's visit. "I remember the great many people showing up, the huge amount of food that was made and how excited everyone in Hisham's circle seemed to be about it," he says. "I didn't understand. I was much too little to know anything about him. I just remember how excited everyone was."
Olson says she eavesdropped on the cleric while she sat in her bedroom or prepared food. Since she didn't speak Arabic, she wrote down phonetic approximations of the phrases he seemed to repeat—phrases that included the word "America." She called a friend who spoke fluent Arabic and asked what they meant. The woman told her to keep her mouth shut.
Three months later, the day that Islamic terrorists who were later tied to Rahman attempted to blow up the World Trade Center, Olson says she called the FBI and unsuccessfully tried to alert them to her husband's activities. The FBI didn't arrest Rahman in connection with the bombing until July 1993. In March of that year, Diab told Olson that Rahman was coming back to town.
"He comes here to our house, and it's all hush-hush," she recalls. "They put a big robe over him. Usually, he gives this big Billy Graham-type inspired sermon, but this time, he's quiet, and I'm like, 'Ooh. He's guilty. The guilty don't speak. If you're innocent, you say, it wasn't me.'"
According to Olson, Diab and Deek arranged to sneak Rahman from Anaheim to West Covina. "They figured out the FBI is going to start following people that have an association with him," she says. "They set it up to have all these people go to this house in Pomona in the same car."
In Pomona, she claims, several identical cars—white Chrysler four-doors—arrived at the house. "They put the blind sheik in the back seat of one of the cars and made him lie down," she says. "They were trying to make it hard for the FBI to follow him. They were trying to get him out of the country. Hisham told me about it when he came home, and they were laughing their heads off."
* * *
In August 1994, Diab traveled to Bosnia to help defend Muslims being subjected to ethnic cleansing at the hands of Serbian and Croatian militiamen during the brutal Balkan civil war. Deek had already gone there, and Diab joined him. It's unclear exactly what Diab and Deek were doing in Bosnia. Diab told Olson they were performing missionary work, helping set up sanctuaries for women who had been raped and providing food and clothing to refugees.
When Diab returned, he claimed he and Deek had worked for "some people from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan," and that they lived in a well-furnished building complete with heat, a telephone and running water—luxuries unavailable to most residents of the war-ravaged country. Years later, after the FBI finally started taking her telephone calls, Olson claims she learned that both Diab and Deek actually set up a terrorist training camp in Bosnia.
Her first hint that her husband's trip to Bosnia was for less-than-humanitarian reasons came in a telephone call from her sister's brother-in-law several weeks after Diab went overseas. "He said, 'Do you know what kind of a fucking idiot your husband is?'" Olson recalls. Without going into details, the man told Olson he thought he was going to Bosnia for charity work, but that once he arrived, he was horrified by what Diab and Deek were doing there. He asked her not to tell Diab that he called her. "I did not come here to be a terrorist," he said. "I don't want anything to do with this shit."
Moazzam Begg is a British citizen who went to Bosnia in the winter of 1994, intending to join the Muslim militias. Begg later tried to fight against the Russians in Chechnya but never got inside the country. He ultimately traveled to Afghanistan to help establish a girl's school with cooperation from the Taliban; Begg was arrested in Pakistan and handed over to American authorities shortly after the U.S. ousted the Taliban from Afghanistan. He spent three years in detention, first at Bagram Air Force Base and then at Guantanamo Bay, before being released without charges.
In an interview last year, Begg told the Weekly he never saw any fighting in Bosnia—the weather was too cold—but would have fought if he had the opportunity. While there, he met Deek, whom he insists did a lot of talking but no fighting. "It seemed to me he wasn't involved in the foreign forces; he was just living there," Begg recalls. "He was talking politics, more of an analyst. It was vague to me. I wasn't fluent in Arabic. . . . He didn't seem physically active."
Whatever Diab and Deek were up to in Bosnia, Olson says she'll never forget what happened when her husband returned to Anaheim. It was, she says, the first time she heard the name or saw the face of Osama bin Laden. Both Diab and all of his belongings needed a good wash. "He smells awful," she recalls. "Everything in his bag smells bad. I throw it all in the wash to wash it, but I didn't realize there's a picture of Osama bin Laden in his pocket. And he freaks out because I accidentally washed it."
According to Olson, her husband panicked because he was supposed to use the photo to make a phony passport for bin Laden. "At this time, Hisham and Khalil had become perfectionists [in making] fake IDs, Social Security cards and passports," she says. "They were supposed to make a U.S. passport for Osama bin Laden. . . . Hisham told me he's a very important Saudi, he did very good work in Afghanistan and is very respected in Bosnia, and I don't love him because I washed this picture."
Olson claims she told Diab to call Deek in Bosnia and arrange for Deek to send another photograph of bin Laden. She listened as her husband called Deek long-distance. "Khalil says, 'Don't worry about it. I can send you another one. I'll e-mail it to you.'" Diab worried aloud they'd get in trouble if they used the Internet to send the photo, but Deek reassured him that he could send an encrypted copy of the file.
"I got the crap kicked out of me for days for that," Olson says.
In temperament if not in politics, Deek seems to have been the polar opposite of Diab. According to Ryan, Deek was as quiet as his stepfather was loud. "Khalil was a calm man, quite the contrast to Hisham," he recalls. "He spoke to me only when necessary, but mostly it was praise that Hisham was raising a great Muslim son. In his discussions with Hisham and others, he would speak about the 'Great Satan,' the usual mantra about American deviance and corruption, as well as what it meant to be a good Muslim by shunning these things."
Olson only recalls one occasion when Deek seemed angry. "He was very soft-spoken," she says. "I only heard him raise his voice once, when he was mad at someone in my living room who wouldn't renounce his Christian family. Hisham and Khalil were telling him you have to reject the fact that your family is Christian—they all should die." The person responded that his father had actually converted to Christianity from Judaism. "That just set them off even more," she says.
The person Diab and Deek were yelling at, she claims, was Adam Yahiye Gadahn.
* * *
The future propagandist for Al-Qaeda—the first American citizen to be charged with treason in five decades—was the son of peace-loving hippies. In the 1960s and 1970s, Gadahn's father, Phil Pearlman, had been a leader of several Southern California psychedelic rock groups that are still considered musically genius today: Beat of the Earth, the Electronic Hole and Relatively Clean Rivers. After becoming a born-again Christian, Pearlman changed his last name to Gadahn and gave Adam the middle name Yahiye, which is Arabic for John the Baptist; he raised his son on a goat farm with no indoor plumbing. Adam sought to escape his family's Luddite existence, first through death-metal music and later through Islam.
Olson says her husband and Deek befriended Gadahn in May or June of 1994, when Gadahn was still listening to death-metal and living with his grandparents in Santa Ana. She believes Diab and Deek were responsible for converting him to radical Islam. "They turned him into that little troll he is today," she says. "They set him up with an apartment across the street from the mosque so he had a place to live."
Olson often cooked food for him. Once, Diab and Deek brought Gadahn home for tea. "He said, 'Wow, thank you very much; that's really good,'" Olson recalls. "Khalil said, 'Don't ever speak to her again. Women are nothing.' . . . He was just this nice kid. He looked like he could be anybody's kid."
Ryan also remembers Gadahn as a gentle-seeming teenager. "He was different," he says. "Whereas others in Hisham's circle would treat me as a servant, he would treat me as a human being. He would say 'please' and 'thank you.' He didn't fit in. He shouldn't have tried to fit in with those people."
After Diab and Deek returned from Bosnia, they seemed to spend more time with Gadahn. In July 1995, they founded a nonprofit organization, Charity Without Borders, that received a grant from the state of California to recycle used motor oil. The ostensible purpose was to raise money for Muslim charities in the Middle East. Olson, who helped her husband file the paperwork, claims it was a fake charity designed to fund terrorist activities. At the time, Diab was working as a tax accountant for a company that had received a similar grant. Olson says he stole the idea from them.
After Diab finally received his start-up money, she says, her husband began printing fliers at the mosque. "On one side, in English, it talks about how America has to support Muslims everywhere and help Muslims here learn English," she says. "But on the back, in Arabic, it talks about how America is a terroristic state—and the checks start rolling in. They start slowly collecting money."
Meanwhile, Diab and Deek also included Gadahn in their Friday-evening prayer circles for single men at the Garden Grove mosque, which is run by the Islamic Society of Orange County. Those discussion circles quickly became critical of the society's leadership, particularly Bundakji, who they saw as too liberal and pro-Western in his views.
Led by Diab and Deek, the group began referring to Bundakji, who frequently met with Christian and Jewish leaders in Orange County, as "Danny the Jew" and even distributed fliers bearing that epithet inside the mosque. "They were supposedly sitting in circles discussing the Koran," Bundakji recalls. "So I never really paid any attention to them until they started becoming nosy and noisy. That's when Hisham Diab, Adam Gadahn and their circle started calling me 'Danny the Jew.' And that's when I started interrupting their circle and asking them to leave."
Bundajki first met Gadahn when he converted to Islam in a ceremony at the mosque. "I was happy to see a young man finding the right path," Bundakji says. "We had a really good discussion about how he came to accept Islam." Because Gadahn spent so much time at the mosque, Bundakji says he offered him a job as a security guard.
"He was there practically the whole day, so I thought he was the perfect guy," he explains. "It was only for a short time because I caught him sleeping at 2 a.m. and I gave him a piece of my mind." Bundakji told Gadahn that sleeping on the job was tantamount to stealing from the mosque. The confrontation provided Bundajki the first inkling that Gadahn didn't like him. "After that, he started mumbling and talking to people, and I started hearing from people that this guy is talking about me, criticizing me."
One day in 1997, Gadahn charged into Bundakji's office. "He was calling me a hypocrite, Jew, Jew-lover, things of that nature," Bundakji recalls. "And then he slapped me right across the face. I was shocked." Other security guards detained Gadahn at the mosque until police arrived, but Bundakji declined to press charges. "I felt sorry for him," he says.
* * *
After a particularly brutal fight in which her husband hit Ryan in the back and dragged her down the stairs by her hair, Saraah Olson divorced Hisham Diab in October 1996. She remarried the following month. Her new husband, she says, was a Muslim in name only and more interested in Armani suits and fast cars than jihad. Olson had a daughter, Ala, who is now 9 years old, before quickly divorcing again.
Adam Gadahn left the United States for Pakistan in 1997. He never spoke to his family again, except to say he was learning Arabic and had married a Muslim woman. The next time his family heard from him was in mid-2004, when Gadahn began appearing on Al-Qaeda propaganda videos under the nom de guerre "Azzam the American." In May of that year, the FBI announced it was seeking Gadahn for questioning in connection with an unspecified plot on U.S. soil.
Gadahn's evolution from confused teenager to alleged terrorist does not surprise observers who note his close relationship to Khalil Deek, who also left the U.S. permanently in 1997 or 1998. He wound up in Peshawar, Pakistan, just across the border from Afghanistan, and rapidly became friendly with Abu Zubaydah, an alleged top lieutenant of Osama bin Laden who was later captured and is now being held at Guantanamo Bay. The two shared a bank account together.
In January 1999, Pakistani police arrested Deek and flew him to Amman, Jordan, where he faced trial in connection with the so-called Millennium Plot against targets in the U.S.—most notably LAX airport—and the Middle East. Authorities found a computerized version of the terrorist training book Encyclopedia Jihad on Deek's computer. He spent several months behind bars, but in May 2000, Jordan freed Deek, citing his cooperation in decoding encrypted computers used by Al-Qaeda. He returned to Pakistan and promptly disappeared.
Deek's brother Tawfiq, who used to live in the same apartment building as Olson, Diab and Deek, has steadfastly maintained his brother was never a terrorist. He says Khalil moved to Pakistan because he wanted to live in an Islamic country and marry a Muslim woman, which by all accounts he did. The last time Tawfiq, who still lives in Anaheim, spoke to his brother was in May 2001, when Khalil told him he was having difficulty obtaining visas for his Syrian-born wife and their four children.
U.S. officials now believe Diab, who left the U.S. permanently in 2001, is alive somewhere in Pakistan or Egypt. They also believe Deek was murdered in Pakistan sometime in 2005. In April of that year, Tawfiq says he received a telephone call from his older brother, Adel, in Jordan, saying that Khalil's wife told him her husband was dead. He says he confirmed the news with Khalil's widow, but he never asked her how his brother died.
"To me, he is dead—murdered, killed, I don't know," Tawfiq told the Weekly last year. "This is what she says. If she says this, why do I not believe it? What do I say? She's a liar?"
Olson claims Tawfiq is wrong about his brother's death. "I know Khalil's still alive," she says. "The FBI thinks he's dead, but not the CIA. Maybe to Tawfiq, he's dead, but he's not." While she acknowledges that Tawfiq never shared her husband's extreme religious or political views, she doesn't buy his claim that he never had reason to suspect Khalil of harboring terrorist sympathies. "Tawfiq is playing the martyr and doing a really good job of it," she says. "But he did not separate himself from them."
Thanks to his brother, Tawfiq has been visited repeatedly by the FBI—first after Khalil's arrest in 1999 and once again on Sept. 11, 2001. Each time, he says, the agents asked him if he knew of any terrorist attacks against the U.S., and each time, he said no. In September 2004, Tawfiq received yet another visit from the FBI, this time because Olson had just appeared in "Al-Qaeda Wedding," an ABC News segment alleging that Diab, Deek and Gadahn were members of a terrorist cell in Anaheim. "I was just a stepping stone to a green card," Olson told viewers. "I married a terrorist."
Also appearing on that segment was Bundajki, who traveled to New York with Olson and vividly recounted the time Gadahn attacked him at the mosque. It was Bundajki who, in conversations with FBI officials and the media, first identified the mysterious "Azzam the American" as none other than Gadahn.
In an interview last year, Tawfiq told the Weekly his wife called him at work shortly before the "Al-Qaeda Wedding" segment aired, saying that a camera crew was in front of their building. He hadn't seen Olson or Diab in years but attended their wedding and says he never had any indication that his brother, Diab or Gadahn—whom he never remembers seeing in the building—were part of a secret terrorist cell.
"They were our neighbors," he said. "This lady [Olson] made up a lot of things. There is a problem with this lady." Asked to comment for this story, Tawfiq refused. "This has been going on for 10 years," he said. "I want to get out of this."
Much has been made of Diab, Deek and Gadahn's membership in Charity Without Borders, which only lost its charter with the state of California after 9/11. The FBI refused to comment for this story, citing its ongoing investigation of Gadahn, who is wanted for treason. Garreth Lacy, a spokesperson for the California Department of Justice, which investigated Charity Without Borders, was equally mum. "Charity Without Borders' registration has been revoked, and our office has closed its investigation," he says. "But I do not have further comments on this matter at this time."
One person who does have an opinion on the matter is Rafat Qahoush, listed on the charity's paperwork as its secretary. Qahoush is a nursing professor in Garden Grove. His training school provides battlefield medical training to the Jordanian government and other pro-Western clients in the Middle East—hardly the pursuit of someone seeking to undermine America's allies in the war on terror.
Qahoush says he wasn't that active in the charity and recalls that Khalil Deek was never around—he always seemed to be out of the country. He only knew Gadahn in passing, as an American who tended to stand out at the mosque. He says he doubts Charity Without Borders ever raised enough money to send overseas, much less support terrorist activities.
"Most of the costs went to print [literature] and distribute sunscreens for cars that said, 'Recycle Your Oil,'" he says. "I'm not sure they made more than $2,000 or $3,000 out of the project." Qahoush adds that he's never been questioned by the FBI or the California Department of Justice about the charity. He also believes Olson is simply a disgruntled ex-wife. "I think she wants to [say these things] because she wants revenge," he says.
Bundajki counters Olson's claim that Charity Without Borders distributed radical literature inside the mosque. "It was one of the organizations that was collecting medicine, clothing and whatever donations that would come to the mosque and would send it to Chechnya, Kosovo, these war-torn Muslim countries," he says. "I honestly do not think they had anything to do with Al-Qaeda whatsoever."
Bundakji argues that after 9/11, many Americans seem to believe that anyone who opposes the Israeli government or who sought to defend Muslims from attack in places like Bosnia or Chechnya were terrorists. "If that's what it means to be a terrorist, then I am one, although I am the most peaceful man on Earth," he says. He points out that since Olson does not read or write Arabic, she cannot say with certainty what the charity's literature said in that language.
"Maybe somebody misled her to believe that," he says. "I like Saraah. She is a good woman, an honest woman. But she gets too excited and exaggerates. Maybe not intentionally, but because of her bad experience, her sad story . . . maybe all these things lead her to daydream a little bit more than what really happened."
* * *
If, as Saraah Olson insists, it is true that she called the FBI to warn them about her husband and his involvement in a pre-9/11 Orange County sleeper cell, it's possible the FBI did find her story too strange to believe. One FBI agent who asked not to be identified said his office gets telephone calls from people who seem crazy all the time. "The trick is not to assume everyone's crazy," he said.
By her count, Olson claims she called the FBI about 30 times. She says she became increasingly worried about Diab shortly before 9/11 when she ran his credit and saw that all his credit cards were overdue. "Once, I didn't pay a Discover card bill and got 12 percent interest and the shit kicked out of me," she says. "Now he's got 14 cards overdue for 60 days—something bad is about to happen."
So Olson called the FBI. "The FBI is like, 'You have no proof.' In September, when the World Trade Center was [attacked], I called the FBI that morning and said, 'My ex-husband has something to do with this. I cannot prove it, but I swear to you that I am not a vindictive ex-wife.'"
According to Olson, the FBI didn't return her telephone calls until December 2001—three months after 9/11. "They sent one agent out to meet with me for half an hour," she says. Olson told her the story about how Hisham Diab and Khalil Deek tried to evade the FBI with Sheik Rahman in tow. "I tell her about the car chase," Olson says, "and she says, 'I was one of the agents in the car. I've been chasing Hisham and Khalil for a long time.'"
The agent, Pauline Falk, recently retired from the FBI. She did not respond to interview requests. But according to Olson, the FBI removed Falk from the case and put her in contact with other agents who insisted she keep her mouth shut. Olson says the agents didn't believe her when she said Diab beat her up for dashing his effort to procure a phony U.S. passport for Osama bin Laden by washing the photo. "They said, 'Saraah, we believe you,'" she recalls. "'You don't have to pad your story.'"
That remark didn't anger Olson nearly as much as the fact that in late 2004, she discovered that, more than three years after 9/11, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security still hadn't placed Diab on its no-fly list. She says she called the FBI, and they confirmed they were using her as bait to lure Diab back to the United States, so they could arrest him. Shortly after that conversation, Olson agreed to appear on television, after which she never spoke to anyone in the FBI again.
"They hung me out to dry," she says. "They were using me as bait. They want him to come back." The prospect terrifies her. She never stays in one location longer than a week or so. "Hisham would never let anybody else kill me," she explains. "He would do it himself. He said that to me once."
Meanwhile, Olson says, it takes her at least an hour to board an airplane because, unlike her ex-husband, she and every member of her immediate family have been placed on the no-fly list. "Going on vacation is a nightmare," she says. "It takes me an hour and a half to board a 45-minute flight to Las Vegas. When I fly, I wear flip-flops, pull-on pants, no underwear or bra, and a T-shirt because I don't want to beep. It's better that way. If I get killed and they try to fly my body back to Washington, it's going to be hell."